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The Ashgate Companion to the History of Textile Workers, 1650-2000

Author(s):Heerma van Voss, Lex
Hiemstra-Kuperus, Els
van Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise
Reviewer(s):Dublin, Thomas

Published by EH.NET (November 2010)

Lex Heerma van Voss, Els Hiemstra-Kuperus, and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, editors, The Ashgate Companion to the History of Textile Workers, 1650-2000. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010. xxiii + 836 pp. $175 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6428-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Thomas Dublin, Department of History, State University of New York at Binghamton.

This volume is a remarkable resource that should prove an extremely useful reference work for decades to come. The editors all have research appointments at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam and the book is the product of a collective intellectual project orchestrated at the Institute.? The editors began by commissioning national histories of textile production by experts within the national historiographies, sharing a framework document that offered a series of questions that each of the authors was encouraged to address. Twenty such histories comprise the first part of this volume, covering countries that in the 1930s were responsible for some 85 percent of all cotton and woolen textile production in the world. Most importantly for the shape of the final work, the editors chose a wide time span for the national essays, from the middle of the seventeenth century to the present, enabling authors to start their histories well before the coming of mechanized production. The editors next invited a number of scholars to write broad, comparative thematic essays based on the national studies and the national essays and comparative pieces became the focus of a conference held at the Institute in November 2004. All the essays went through one more round of revision based on the discussions at the conference and the result is this rich, monumental work. Thirty-one essays by thirty-seven authors provide quite a diverse and provocative scholarly feast.

The narratives offered in the individual national chapters will probably be quite familiar to specialists in the textile histories of these countries, but it is the breadth and comparative possibilities created by bringing so many accounts together in one place that is particularly valuable. While I found the essays on textiles in Great Britain and the United States to be rich and thoughtful, the essays on Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and China provided strikingly different stories and hence captured my interest. The range of national accounts points to the multiple stories involved in textile industrialization, each of which must, as Joel Beinin notes, ?be understood in its own context? (p. 173).? Not only are these national stories quite different from one another, but they are intertwined, as reading a good number of them will make immediately apparent.? So we learn about the impact of the American Civil War on textile production in the United States and Great Britain, but we see as well that the cessation of trade between England and the American South during the Civil War led Egyptian cultivators to turn to cotton which they exported to the undersupplied British market.? In its own way the history of textiles in India reveals the ?globalized? nature of the industry more so than other national accounts, beginning with British colonial occupation and continuing through the quite different meanings of globalization at the turn of the twenty-first century.? This volume brings together comparative history and global history in ways that enrich understandings that are all too often based entirely on national histories.? Historians work and write too often in narrow specialty silos and this volume reminds us of the value of broadening our vision and exploring big questions.

As we move to the specifically comparative section of the volume, one theme receives particularly strong expression, that the European model of textile industrialization is too limited to encompass the global and temporal range that the essays brought together here illuminate. Roberta Marx Delson, in a chapter focused on ethnicity and migration, finds ?significant deviations from European models? as one ranges more broadly (p. 650).? In particular, she emphasizes the use of unfree labor in textile production in Africa and the Americas, in contrast to practices within Europe.?? A related theme in the comparative chapters is the importance of getting beyond a European-centered view of textile industrialization in the rest of the world.? Donald Quataert, referring to the Ottoman Empire and India, notes that contemporary European observers remarked on the marked decline of textile exports to Europe, but in the process ?distorted the overall picture of many local textile industries? (p. 582; see also pp. 479-80).? Even as European imports mushroomed in China and India, the evidence suggests that domestic producers continued to expand their output for a domestic market that grew healthily.?

The comparative dimension of the project also encourages reflection on theoretical constructs — some that have shaped earlier syntheses of (largely European) textile history and others that reflect newer approaches to historical interpretation.? The authors of a number of these essays subject the concept of proto-industrialization and its relationship to textile industrialization to valuable critical evaluation. Hunter and Macnaughtan (p. 309), Quataert (pp. 581-84), Komlosy (p. 622), and Delson (pp. 78, 647) all offer evaluations of the concept of proto-industrialization in their essays, as do the editors in their concluding chapter (pp. 774-76).? Similarly, Hunter and Macnaughtan (pp. 703-24) explore the ways gender provides a valuable analytic tool in the various national histories and also the ways that these histories reveal gender as very much a social and historical construction. Finally, the volume?s editors provide a thoughtful conclusion concerning the continual drive in the history of textile production to reduce labor costs, what contemporary activist opponents of globalization have characterized as the ?race to the bottom.?? This volume places that contemporary concept within a rich, historical framework that reaches back 350 years and encompasses a much greater range of strategies than is evident among multinational corporations of our day.? It is one of the great strengths of this sort of global and comparative analysis that it speaks at once to the complexities of textile industrial history that have engaged historians for generations while also addressing one of the most pressing social issues of our time.

Thomas Dublin is Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York at Binghamton.? His first published work focused on women textile workers in nineteenth-century New England and he is currently co-editor of an online digital archive, Women and Social Movements, International?1840 to Present, that will appear in segments over a year beginning in January 2011.

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Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII